Not the Same Old Song: The Art of Being Betty Buckley

Boy Culture

January 9, 2015

Betty Buckley is a national treasure.

Unlike many others who have achieved that status, she isn’t known for one project or even one medium—some immediately know her as “Grizabella” from the original Broadway production of Cats (for which she won her Tony), others think of her as the replacement mom on Eight is Enough in the ’70s, still others go to her strong performance in the indelible film Carrie (1976).

The truth is, she’s done even more than those already dissimilar and wonderful things. But if one gift can be singled out among the many, I would argue that it has to be her singing voice, which is a unique and mesmerizing instrument. And it only gets better.

If you need a reminder, Buckley has recently released Ghostlight, a beautifully nuanced collection of classic songs (produced by T Bone Burnett) that you feel like you’re hearing for the first time thanks to her interpretive skills. She’ll be performing them live in Palm Springs (January 17),  Beverly Hills (January 24), Miami (February 27 & 28), Boston (March 13 & 14) and Fort Worth (March 28), as well as teaching a Song Interpretation & Monologue Workshop in L.A. (beginning January 18).

I was honored to interview Ms Buckley this month.

Boy Culture: You’ve been praised for your interpretive skills (and are teaching this art). Do you feel too many singers feel bound by previous recordings of a song? Do you still appreciate an on-point re-creation of a classic song that’s done with nothing new brought to the table?

Betty Buckley: I teach my students to take the time to discover themselves in the material they choose to sing. I think it’s important to bring an individual interpretation to each song.

I always enjoy songs sung as they were originally sung or recorded and there is never “nothing new” brought to the table. Each person’s interpretation is uniquely their own. Every voice is unique, every person is an individual.

BC: Do you think being a good actress is a major plus for a singer?

BB: Yes. Good storytelling is what it is all about.

BC: It must be daunting for singers to consider bringing something new to a song that’s so beloved by millions. What’s your advice for how much interpretation is a good and creative thing and when it can veer into dishonoring a classic?

BB: The interpretation must come from the heart. A singer can’t go wrong when his/her motivation to interpret material is truly felt. As the famous quote goes, “You can’t please all the people all the time.” So some people may prefer to hear a traditional version, but that should not prevent a singer’s creative impulse to offer something new. And, of course, it’s very good to sing the notes the way the composer wrote it.

BC: Is there any song you wouldn’t dare touch because it’s just perfect as is or because there is an indelible version of it out there?

BB: There are many songs by great singers that I love. And I feel about those that I would have nothing new to offer.

BC: From your new album, which recording is your favorite? Which was the toughest to get exactly right?

BB: My favorite track on the new album is “Comin’ Back to Me.” The work on the album was such a joy, I don’t remember any of it being a tough experience.

BC: What is it like to work with T Bone Burnett?

BB: T Bone and I have been friends since we were teenagers.  He made the first recording of my voice when we were both 19 years old. I have loved him for all these years. It was a complete joy to get to collaborate with him on Ghostlight.

BC: Who’s your own favorite singer of all time?

BB: I have several favorite singers. Michael McDonald, Dori Cayami, Allison Krauss, Joni Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Kelly Clarkson and many more.

BB: Are you just as happy to receive attention from fans who know you more for your TV or movie work?

BC: People seem to know me for different reasons. And that is very nice. I am very grateful to have such an eclectic career.

BC: What can fans expect from your upcoming live shows featuring the songs from your latest album?

BB: I hope the audiences will experience it as an evening of beautiful music.